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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Son Volt channel country music's past through a pedal-steel guitar
Honky-tonk history lesson
Farrar debuts his new instrumental skills on <i>Honky Tonk.</i>
Farrar debuts his new instrumental skills on Honky Tonk.

Jay Farrar has been dwelling on the past, but not in a crying-over-spilled-milk way. The Uncle Tupelo alum has been busy with Honky Tonk, the seventh album by his current band, Son Volt. Instead of revisiting the alt-country trail Uncle Tupelo blazed, he revels in the boisterous spirit of old-fashioned piano bars and the early days of the Grand Ole Opry. He also plays the pedal steel he learned just two years ago, paying homage to honky-tonk's history while broadening the scope of his sound. I talked to Farrar before Son Volt's June 6 show at the High Noon Saloon.

Why did you focus on honky-tonk for the new album?

It's the type of music I grew up around. My father played songs from Hank Williams and Jimmy Rollins. Eventually I started listening to Buck Owens.... But as a kid I was going to punk rock shows like Circle Jerks and Black Flag.

How did you go from watching punk shows to playing country rock in Uncle Tupelo?

The [Uncle Tupelo] template was there, from the Byrds to the Flying Burrito Brothers. I think the band was processing the same music that other bands had done before…and making something that was our own. I'm continually learning about country music from the 1950s and early 1960s, which were the heyday, in my opinion.

Why is that?

There was a convergence of recording technology, and the musicians weren't afraid to try out new effects like delay and reverb on whatever instruments or vocals they were recording. The convergence also included the evolving pedal-steel guitar technology. These inspirations naturally led to Honky Tonk.

You've mentioned that Honky Tonk is also about the road. How does that factor into its sound?

You pick up music here and there, [like] the Norteño Mexican music station that I've come across on the FM dial. But there's not a lot of that on this recording. And not all the songs are about honky-tonk. The first song, "Hearts and Minds," has Cajun influences, and the last song has a syncopated beat, which is not on any honky-tonk record.

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